What Should Socialists Do?
This was prepared prior to the Summer 2017 Democratic Socialits of America
convention. DSA’s membership as of April 2018 now stands at 34,000.
BY JOSEPH M. SCHWARTZ / BHASKAR SUNKARA
Democratic socialism needs to become a mass presence in US society.
The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has 25,000 members. Its growth over the past
year has been massive – tripling in size – and no doubt a product of the increasing rejection of a bipartisan
neoliberal consensus that has visited severe economic insecurity on the vast majority, particularly among
No socialist organization has been this large in decades. The possibilities for transforming
American politics are exhilarating.
In considering how to make such a transformation happen, we might be tempted to usher those ranks of new
socialists into existing vehicles for social change: community organizations, trade unions, or electoral campaigns
— organizations more likely to win immediate victories for the workers that are at the center of our
vision. Why not put our energy and hone our skills where they seem to be needed the most? Workers’ needs
are incredibly urgent; shouldn’t we drop everything and join in these existing struggles right now?
While it’s crucial to be deeply involved in such struggles as socialists, we also have something
unique to offer the working class, harnessing a logic that supports but is different from the one
that organizers for those existing vehicles operate under. Here’s a sketch of a practical approach
rooted in that vision that can win support for democratic social change in the short run and a
majority for socialist transformation in the long run.
Fighting for “Non-Reformist Reforms”
For socialists, theory and practice must be joined at the hip. Socialists work for reforms that
weaken the power of capital and enhance the power of working people, with the aim of winning
further demands — what André Gorz called “non-reformist reforms.” We want to move towards a complete
break with the capitalist system. Socialists, unlike single-issue activists, know that democratic victories must
be followed by more democratic victories, or they will be rolled back.
Single-payer health care is a classic example of a “non-reformist” reform, one that would pry our
health system free from capital’s iron grip and empower the working class by nationalizing the
private health insurance industry. But socialists conceive of this struggle differently than
single-issue advocates of Medicare for All.
Socialists understand that single payer alone cannot deal with the cost spiral driven by for-profit
hospital and pharmaceutical companies. If we do achieve a national (or state-level) single-payer
system, the fight wouldn’t be over; socialists would then fight for nationalization of the
pharmaceutical industry. A truly socialized health care system (as in Britain and Sweden) would
nationalize hospitals and clinics staffed by well-paid, unionized health care workers.
Socialists can and should be at the forefront of fights like this today. To do so, we must gain the
skills needed to define who holds power in a given sector and how to organize those who have a stake
in taking it away from them. But we can’t simply be the best activists in mass struggles.
Single-issue groups too often attack a few particularly bad corporate actors without also arguing
that a given crisis cannot be solved without curtailing capitalist power.
Socialists not only have to be the most competent organizers in struggle, but they have to offer an
analysis that reveals the systemic roots of a particular crisis and offer reforms that challenge
the logic of capitalism.
Building a Majority
As socialists, our analysis of capitalism leads us to not just a moral and ethical critique of the
system, but to seeing workers as the central agents of winning change.
This isn’t a random fetishizing of workers — it’s based on their structural position in the
economy. Workers have the ability to disrupt production and exchange, and they have an interest in
banding together and articulating collective demands. This makes them the key agents of change
This view can be caricatured as ignoring struggles for racial justice, immigrant rights,
reproductive freedom, and more. But nothing could be further from the truth. The working class is
majority women and disproportionately brown and black and immigrant; fighting for the working class
means fighting on precisely these issues, as well as for the rights of children, the elderly, and
all those who cannot participate in the paid labor market.
Socialists must also fight on the ideological front. We must combat the dominant ideology of market
individualism with a compelling vision of democracy and freedom, and show how only in a society
characterized by democratic decision-making and universal political, civil, and social rights can
individuals truly flourish.
If socialist activists cannot articulate an attractive vision of socialist freedom, we will not be
able to overcome popular suspicion that socialism would be a drab, pseudo-egalitarian,
authoritarian society. Thus we must model in our own socialist organizations the democratic debate,
peaceful conflict, and social solidarity that would characterize a socialist world.
A democratic socialist organization that doesn’t have a rich and accessible internal educational
life will not develop an activist core who can be public tribunes for socialism. Activists don’t
stay committed to building a socialist organization unless they can articulate to themselves and
others why even a reformed capitalism remains a flawed, undemocratic society.
The Power of a Minority
But socialists must also be front and center in struggles to win the short-term victories that
empower people and lead them to demand more. Socialists today are a minority building and pushing
forward a potential, progressive anti-corporate majority. We have no illusions that the dominant
wing of the Democrats are our friends. Of course, most levels of government are now run by
Republicans well to the right of them. But taking on neoliberal Democrats must be part of a
strategy to defeat the far right.
Take the Democrats, who are showing what woeful supposed leaders of “the resistance” they are every
day. Contrary to the party leadership’s single-note insistence, the Russians did not steal the
election for Trump; rather, a tepid Democratic candidate who ran on expertise and competence lost
because her corporate ties precluded her articulation of a program that would aid the working class
— a $15 minimum wage, Medicare for All, free public higher education.
Clinton failed to gain enough working-class votes of all races to win the key states in the former
industrial heartland; she ended up losing to the most disliked, buffoonish presidential candidate
in history. If we remain enthralled to Democratic politics-as-usual, we’re going to continue being
stuck with cretins like Donald Trump.
Of course, progressive and socialist candidates who openly reject the neoliberal mainstream
Democratic agenda may choose for pragmatic reasons to use the Democratic Party ballot line in
partisan races. But whatever ballot line the movement chooses to use, we must always be working to
increase the independent power of labor and the Left.
Sanders provides an example: it’s hard to imagine him offering a radical opening to using the “s”
word in American politics for his openly independent campaign if he had run on an independent line.
Bernie also showed the strength of socialists using coalition politics to build a short-term
progressive majority and to win people over to a social-democratic program and, sometimes, to
socialism. Sanders gained the support of six major unions; if we had real social movement unionism
in this country, he would have carried the banner of the entire organized working-class movement.
Bernie’s weaker performance than Clinton among voters of color — though not among millennials of
color — derived mostly from his being a less known commodity. But it also demonstrated that socialists
need deeper social roots among older women and communities of color. That means developing
the organizing strategies that will better implant us in the labor movement and working-class
communities, as well as struggles for racial justice and gender and sexual emancipation.
Socialists have the incumbent obligation to broaden out the post-Sanders, anti-corporate trend in
US politics into a working-class “rainbow coalition.” We must also fight our government’s
imperialist foreign policy and push to massively cut wasteful “defense” spending. We should be
involved in multiracial coalitions, fighting for reforms like equitable public education and
Democratic socialists can be the glue that brings together disparate social movement that share an
interest in democratizing corporate power. We can see the class relations that pervade society and
how they offer common avenues of struggle. But at 25,000 members, we can’t substitute ourselves for
the broader currents needed to break the power of both far-right nativist Republicans and
pro-corporate neoliberal Democrats.
We have to work together with broader movements that may not be anti-capitalist but remain
committed to reforms. These movements have the potential to win material improvements for workers’
lives. If we stay isolated from them, we will slide into sectarian irrelevance.
Of course, socialists should endeavor to build their own organizational strength and to operate as
an independent political force. We cannot mute our criticism against business unionist trends in
the labor movement and the middle-class professional leadership of many advocacy groups. But in the
here and now, we must also help win those victories that will empower workers to conceive of more
radical democratic gains. Our members are disproportionately highly educated, young, male, and
white. To win victories, we must pursue a strategy and orientation that makes us more
representative of the working class.
Grasping the Moment
In the final analysis, socialists must be both tribunes for socialism and the best organizers.
That’s how the Communist Party grew rapidly from 1935-1939. They set themselves up as the left
wing of the CIO and of the New Deal coalition, and grew from twenty thousand to one hundred thousand
members during that period.
The Socialist Party, on the other hand, condemned the New Deal as “a restoration of capitalism.” In
saying so they were partly right: the New Deal was in part about saving capitalism from itself. But
such a stance was also profoundly wrong in that it distanced the Socialist Party from popular
struggles from below, including those for workers’ rights and racial equality that forced capital
to make important concessions. This rejection was rooted in a concern that those struggles were
“reformist”; it led the SP to fall from twenty thousand members in 1935 to three thousand in 1939.
Of course, there are also negative lessons to be learned from the Communist growth during the
Popular Front period. They hid their socialist identity in an attempt to appeal to the broadest
swath of Americans possible. When forced to reveal it, they referred to an authoritarian Soviet
Union as their model. And by following Moscow’s line on the Hitler-Stalin Pact and then the
no-strike pledge during World War II, the party abandoned the most militant sectors of the working
class. Thus, the Communists put themselves in a position that prevented them from ever winning
hegemony within the US working-class movement from liberal forces.
Still, the Popular Front was the last time socialism had any mass presence in the United States —
in part because, in its own way, the Communists rooted their struggles for democracy within US
political culture while trying to build a truly multiracial working-class movement.
The road to DSA becoming a real working-class organization runs through us becoming the openly
socialist wing of a mass movement opposed to a bipartisan neoliberal consensus. If we only become
better organizers, with more practical skills in door-knocking and phone-banking and one-on-one
conversations, we will likely see the defection of many of our most skilled organizers who will
take those skills and get jobs doing “mass work” in reformist organizations.
Such a defection bedeviled DSA in the 1980s, leading to a “donut” phenomenon — thousands of
members embedded in mass movements, but few building the center of DSA as an organization. We
must avoid this. Simultaneously, if we don’t relate politically to social forces bigger than our own, DSA
could devolve into merely a large socialist sect or subculture.
The choice to adopt a strategy that would move us towards becoming a mass socialist organization
with working-class roots is ours. This is the most promising moment for the socialist left in
decades. If we take advantage of it, we can make our own history.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Joseph M. Schwartz is the national vice-chair of the Democratic Socialists of America, and professor
of political science at Temple.
Bhaskar Sunkara is the founding editor of Jacobin.